We've been keeping one eye on aspirational social network Diaspora since its inception, and now that it's rolling out the invitations ahead of its forthcoming Beta, and having apparently addressed the security issues of the past, we took the Alpha for a spin. The first thing that strikes you is just how much the user interface resembles that of Google+, from its three-column layout, down to the specific content of those columns and more besides. But given the gradual rollout of the Diaspora Alpha it may not be immediately clear to new users just who is mimicking whom.

How do I resemble thee? Let me count the ways

Say you've just signed up to the Diaspora Alpha. You've logged in, maybe you've pulled some data in from your Facebook account, and you're ready to get social. Diaspora presents you with a three-column social hub, the central one of which is the main draw: a reverse-chronological "Stream" of updates from other Diaspora users. Status updates have been king of social content since Facebook updated its wall design in line with the minimalist status-centrism of Twitter. Google+ and Diaspora have since jumped on the speedboat, and without a better idea it would have been remarkable for them to do otherwise. Both Diaspora and Google+ refer to this rolling feed as the "stream".

Beyond the focus on live content, the resemblance of Diaspora to Google+ is striking, down to some curious details. Top of the left-hand column is your profile picture, and beneath that is a list of your contact groups with which you can filter the stream. Google+ users will be familiar with these as "circles". Diaspora refers to these groups, somewhat confusingly, as "aspects". Rather nattily, Diaspora lets you filter by any combination of aspects you choose whereas Google+ only lets you view the recent activity of all contacts, or that of an individual circle, at any one time. When posting updates to either service (neither of which have a character limit), users can share with any combination of contact groups they deem appropriate, and as with Google+, Diaspora allows users to create as many of these groups as desired, as well as assign contacts to multiple groups.

The similarities continue in the right-hand navigation column, which is topped by an array of contacts' profile photos with a link to all contacts beneath, and below that is an invitation link to bring friends into the service; all of which is more or less exactly as it appears on Google+. And lest we overlook the wood for the trees, a broader side by side comparison reveals very similar column widths, use of white space and fonts. And so far we're not even off the front page. Navigate to a user's profile and the similarities continue, down to the blue edit profile button in the top-right corner (if it's your own profile that you're looking at, you narcissist).

A curious chronology

Though Google+ launched in June, and Diaspora only seems to have been shipping out invitations to its Alpha with any sort of aggression over the last month or two, it would appear that it is in fact Diaspora that has influenced the design of Google+. An image posted to Diaspora by user claudionegri79* shows what purports to be a Diaspora screen grab from May of this year with nearly all of the common design elements in place the month prior to the launch of Google+.

A September post on the Diaspora blog confirms the chronology, if only explicitly with reference to aspects. "We're proud that Google+ imitated one of our core features, aspects, with their circles," the blog post says.

Cosmetics aside, it's this ability to organize contacts in a way that may better reflect real world social groups that is the core similarity between the two services. Since it is a feature that is at the forefront of the Google+ advertising campaign, it's notable that it appears to have been borrowed outright from Diaspora.

Hashtags, apps and "reshares"

It's only natural that companies should be influenced by rival products, and Diaspora isn't above folding established social features into its service, albeit with a Diasporan twist. The most immediately apparent is the use of hashtags a la Twitter. New users are prompted to enter their interests as hashtags upon sign-up as a means of meeting new contacts, and then to post their first public message to the Diaspora community introducing themselves and their hashtagged interests.

All public messages containing hashtags can be browsed from the left-hand social column, although at present this results in a stream of new users declaring their interest in said topic. Exhibits A, B and C: #books, #movies and #music hashtags. The idea of rolling public conversations on these topics is a compelling one (and Diaspora's hashtags feel less ephemeral than Twitter's), but for now, Diaspora is a very noisy place to hang out.

Hashtags extend to personal profile, where Diaspora asks you to describe yourself in five tags, which is an oddly uncomfortable experience if you have an ounce of introspection about you. Another import from Twitter is the retweet-inspired ability to "reshare" status updates and images posted to the service.

With cubbi.es, Diaspora is embracing the world of apps. Written by Diasporia's Daniel Grippi, cubbi.es is a neat tool to archive and share photographs found on the web, though you'll need a browser extension to do so. It's then but a simple matter of shift-clicking any photo on the web and it'll be shared (publicly, mind) on Diaspora.

More open, yet more closed

It's heartening that the Diaspora team are encouraged by their apparent influence upon the social networking industry on matters of privacy and user control, particularly given the sad news of the recent death of Diaspora cofounder, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who referred to himself as a dragon slayer "for freedom, privacy, and openness" on the Internet. As we've discussed, Diaspora was founded on principles of user privacy, security and openness, and these are principles that Diaspora still appears to take seriously - the software remains open source, and is still reliant on its funding model of user-contributions rather than advertising.

All in all...

There are one or two minor annoyances with the Diaspora experience. At the moment the website runs noticeably more slowly than its rivals, and the animated user icons (mercifully rare) really have to go. But beyond such minor quibbles, Diaspora has grown into a tremendously useable social network with a feature set as admirable as its founding principles. It comes doubly recommended to Google+ users, who will feel immediately at home with many of its features and UI. Funny that.

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